XV.

Before December was half gone—and while the mild autumn weather serenely held, in spite of weather predictions and of storm signs about the sun and days of blue haze and motionless trees—the newspaper-reading public knew all the outside facts about the fight in wheat, and they knew it to be the biggest fight since the days of “Old Hutch” and the two-dollar-a-bushel record. Indeed, there were men who predicted that the two-dollar mark would be reached before Christmas, for the Clique of speculators who held the floor were buying, buying, buying—millions upon millions of dollars were slipping through their ready hands, and still there was no hesitation, no weakening. Until the small fry had dropped out the deal had been confused; it was too big, there were too many interests involved, to make possible a clear understanding, but now it was settling down into a grim fight between the biggest men on the Board. The Clique were buying wheat—Page & Company were selling it to them: if it should come out, on the thirty-first of December, that Page & Company had sold more than they could deliver, the Clique would be winners; but if it should have been delivered, to the last bushel, the corner would be broken, and the Clique would drop from sight as so many reckless men had dropped before. The readers of every great newspaper in the country were watching Page & Company. The general opinion was that they could not do it, that such an enormous quantity of grain could not be delivered and registered in time, even if it were to be had.

But the public overlooked, indeed it had no means of knowing, one important fact. The members of the Clique were new men in the public eye. They represented apparently unlimited capital, but they were young, eager, overstrung; flushed with the prospect of success, they were talking for publication. They believed they knew of every bushel in the country that was to be had, and they allowed themselves to say that they had already bought more than this. If this were true, Page was beaten. But it was not true. The young men of the Clique had forgotten that Page had trained agents in every part of the world; that he had alliances with great railroad and steamer lines, that he had a weather bureau and a system of crop reports that outdid those of the United States Government, that he could command more money than two such Cliques, and, most important of all, that he did not talk for publication. The young speculators were matching their wits against a great machine. Page had the wheat, he was making the effort of his career to deliver it, and he had no idea of losing.

Already millions of bushels had been rushed into Chicago. It was here that the fight took on its spectacular features, for the grain must be weighed and inspected before it could be accepted by the Board of Trade, and this could be done only in “regular” warehouses. The struggle had been to get control of these warehouses. It was here that the Clique had done their shrewdest work, and they had supposed that Page was finally outwitted, until they discovered that he had coolly set about building a million-bushel annex to his new house, Calumet K. And so it was that the newspapers learned that on the chance of completing Calumet K before the thirty-first of December hung the whole question of winning and losing; that if Bannon should fail, Page would be short two million bushels. And then came reporters and newspaper illustrators, who hung about the office and badgered Hilda, or perched on timber piles and sketched until Bannon or Peterson or Max could get at them and drive them out. Young men with snap-shot cameras way-laid Bannon on his way to luncheon, and published, with his picture, elaborate stories of his skill in averting a strike—stories that were not at all true.

Far out in Minnesota and Montana and South Dakota farmers were driving their wheat-laden wagons to the hundreds of local receiving houses that dotted the railroad lines. Box cars were waiting for the red grain, to roll it away to Minneapolis and Duluth—day and night the long trains were puffing eastward. Everywhere the order was, “Rush!” Railroad presidents and managers knew that Page was in a hurry, and they knew what Page’s hurries meant, not only to the thousands of men who depended on him for their daily bread, but to the many great industries of the Northwest, whose credit and integrity were inextricably interwoven with his. Division superintendents knew that Page was in a hurry, and they snapped out orders and discharged half-competent men and sent quick words along the hot wires that were translated by despatchers and operators and yard masters into profane, driving commands. Conductors knew it, brakemen and switchmen knew it; they made flying switches in defiance of companies’ orders, they ran where they used to walk, they slung their lunch pails on their arms and ate when and where they could, gazing over their cold tea at some portrait of Page, or of a member of the Clique, or of Bannon, in the morning’s paper.

Elevator men at Minneapolis knew that Page was in a hurry, and they worked day and night at shovel and scale. Steamboat masters up at Duluth knew it, and mates and deck hands and stevedores and dockwallopers—more than one steamer scraped her paint in the haste to get under the long spouts that waited to pour out grain by the hundred thousand bushels. Trains came down from Minneapolis, boats came down from Duluth, warehouse after warehouse at Chicago was filled; and over-strained nerves neared the breaking point as the short December days flew by. Some said the Clique would win, some said Page would win; in the wheat pit men were fighting like tigers; every one who knew the facts was watching Charlie Bannon.

The storm came on the eighteenth of the month. It was predicted two days ahead, and ship masters were warned at all the lake ports. It was a Northwest blizzard, driven down from the Canadian Rockies at sixty miles an hour, leaving two feet of snow behind it over a belt hundreds of miles wide. But Page’s steamers were not stopping for blizzards; they headed out of Duluth regardless of what was to come. And there were a bad few days, with tales of wreck on lake and railroad, days of wind and snow and bitter cold, and of risks run that supplied round-house and tug-office yarn spinners with stories that were not yet worn out. Down on the job the snow brought the work to a pause, but Bannon, within a half-hour, was out of bed and on the ground, and there was no question of changing shifts until, after twenty-four hours, the storm had passed, and elevator, annex and marine tower were cleared of snow. Men worked until they could not stagger, then snatched a few hours’ sleep where they could. Word was passed that those who wished might observe the regular hours, but not a dozen men took the opportunity. For now they were in the public eye, and they felt as soldiers feel, when, after long months of drill and discipline, they are led to the charge.

Then came two days of biting weather—when ears were nipped and fingers stiffened, and carpenters who earned three dollars a day envied the laborers, whose work kept their blood moving—and after this a thaw, with sleet and rain. James, the new delegate, came to Bannon and pointed out that men who are continually drenched to the skin are not the best workmen. The boss met the delegate fairly; he ordered an oilskin coat for every man on the job, and in another day they swarmed over the building, looking, at a distance, like glistening yellow beetles.

But if Chicago was thawing, Duluth was not. The harbor at the western end of Lake Superior was ice-bound, and it finally reached a point that the tugs could not break open the channel. This was on the twenty-third and twenty-fourth. The wires were hot, but Page’s agents succeeded in covering the facts until Christmas Day. It was just at dusk, after leaving the men to take down the cable, that Bannon went to the office.

A newsboy had been on the grounds with a special edition of a cheap afternoon paper. Hilda had taken one, and when Bannon entered the office he found her reading, leaning forward on the desk, her chin on her hands, the paper spread out over the ledger.

“Hello,” he said, throwing off his dripping oilskin, and coming into the enclosure; “I’m pretty near ready to sit down and think about the Christmas tree that we ain’t going to have.”

She looked up, and he saw that she was a little excited; her eyes always told him. During this last week she had been carrying the whole responsibility of the work on her shoulders.

“Have you seen this?” she asked.

“Haven’t read a paper this week.” He leaned over the desk beside her and read the article. In Duluth harbor, and at St. Mary’s straits, a channel through the ice had been blasted out with dynamite, and the last laden steamer was now ploughing down Lake Michigan. Already one steamer was lying at the wharf by the marine tower, waiting for the machinery to start, and others lay behind her, farther down the river. Long strings of box cars filled the Belt Line sidings, ready to roll into the elevator at the word.

Bannon seated himself on the railing, and caught his toes between the supports.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, “those fellows have got to get up pretty early in the morning if they’re going to beat old Page.”

She looked at him, and then slowly folded the paper and turned toward the window. It was nearly dark outside. The rain, driving down from the northeast, tapped steadily on the glass. The arc lamp, on the pole near the tool house, was a blurred circle of light. She was thinking that they would have to get up pretty early to beat Charlie Bannon.

They were silent for a time—silences were not so hard as they had been, a few weeks before—both looking out at the storm, and both thinking that this was Christmas night. On the afternoon before he had asked her to take a holiday, and she had shaken her head. “I couldn’t—I’d be here before noon,” was what she had said; and she had laughed a little at her own confession, and hurried away with Max.

She turned and said, “Is it done—the belt gallery?”

He nodded. “All done.”

“Well——” she smiled; and he nodded again.

“The C. & S. C. man—the fellow that was around the other day and measured to see if it was high enough—he’s out there looking up with his mouth open. He hasn’t got much to say.”

“You didn’t have to touch the tracks at all?”

“Not once. Ran her out and bolted her together, and there she was. I’m about ready for my month off. We’ll have the wheat coming in to-morrow, and then it’s just walking down hill.”

“To-morrow?” she asked. “Can you do it?”

“Got to. Five or six days aren’t any too much. If it was an old house and the machinery was working well, I’d undertake to do it in two or three, but if we get through without ripping up the gallery, or pounding the leg through the bottom of a steamer, it’ll be the kind of luck I don’t have.” He paused and looked at the window, where the rain was streaking the glass. “I’ve been thinking about my vacation. I’ve about decided to go to the St. Lawrence. Maybe there are places I’d like better, but when a fellow hasn’t had a month off in five years, he doesn’t feel like experiments.”

It was the personal tone again, coming into their talk in spite of the excitement of the day and the many things that might have been said. Hilda looked down at the ledger, and fingered the pages. Bannon smiled.

“If I were you,” he said, “I’d shut that up and fire it under the table. This light isn’t good enough to work by, anyway.”

She slowly closed the book, saying:—

“I never worked before on Christmas.”

“It’s a mistake. I don’t believe in it, but somehow it’s when my hardest work always comes. One Christmas, when I was on the Grand Trunk, there was a big wreck at a junction about sixty miles down the road.”

She saw the memory coming into his eyes, and she leaned back against the desk, playing with her pen, and now and then looking up.

“I was chief wrecker, and I had an old Scotch engineer that you couldn’t move with a jack. We’d rubbed up together three or four times before I’d had him a month, and I was getting tired of it. We’d got about halfway to the junction that night, and I felt the brakes go on hard, and before I could get through the train and over the tender, we’d stopped dead. The Scotchman was down by the drivers fussing around with a lantern. I hollered out:—

“‘What’s the matter there?’

“‘She’s a bit ‘ot,’ said he.

“You’d have thought he was running a huckleberry train from the time he took. I ordered him into the cab, and he just waved his hand and said:—

“‘Wait a bit, wait a bit. She’ll be cool directly.'”

Bannon chuckled at the recollection.

“What did you do?” Hilda asked.

“Jumped for the lever, and hollered for him to get aboard.”

“Did he come?”

“No, he couldn’t think that fast. He just stood still, looking at me, while I threw her open, and you could see his lantern for a mile back—he never moved. He had a good six-mile walk back to the last station.”

There was a long silence. Bannon got up and walked slowly up and down the enclosure with his hands deep in his pockets.

“I wish this would let up,” he said, after a time, pausing in his walk, and looking again at the window. “It’s a wonder we’re getting things done at all.”

Hilda’s eye, roaming over the folded newspaper, fell on the weather forecast.

“Fair to-morrow,” she said, “and colder.”

“That doesn’t stand for much. They said the same thing yesterday. It’s a worse gamble than wheat.”

Bannon took to walking again; and Hilda stepped down and stood by the window, spelling out the word “Calumet” with her finger on the misty glass. At each turn, Bannon paused and looked at her. Finally he stood still, not realizing that he was staring until she looked around, flushed, and dropped her eyes. Then he felt awkward, and he began turning over the blue prints on the table.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll have to do,” he said. “I rather think now I’ll start on the third for Montreal. I’m telling you a secret, you know. I’m not going to let Brown or MacBride know where I’ll be. And if I can pick up some good pictures of the river, I’ll send them to you. I’ll get one of the Montmorency Falls, if I can. They’re great in winter.”

“Why—why, thank you,” she said. “I’d like to have them.”

“I ain’t much at writing letters,” he went on, “but I’ll send you the pictures, and you write and tell me how things are going.”

She laughed softly, and followed the zigzag course of the raindrop with her finger.

“I wouldn’t have very much to say,” she said, speaking with a little hesitation, and without looking around. “Max and I never do much.”

“Oh, you can tell how your work goes, and what you do nights.”

“We don’t do much of anything. Max studies some at night—a man he used to work for gave him a book of civil engineering.”

“What do you do?”

“I read some, and then I like to learn things about—oh, about business, and how things are done.”

Bannon could not take his eyes from her—he was looking at her hair, and at the curved outline of one cheek, all that he could see of her face. They both stood still, listening to the patter of the rain, and to the steady drip from the other end of the office, where there was a leak in the roof. Once she cleared her throat, as if to speak, but no words came.

There was a stamping outside, and she slipped back to the ledger, as the door flew open. Bannon turned to the blue prints.

Max entered, pausing to knock his cap against the door, and wring it out.

“You ought to have stayed out, Mr. Bannon,” he said. “It’s the greatest thing you ever saw—doesn’t sag an inch. And say—I wish you could hear the boys talk—they’d lie down and let you walk on ’em, if you wanted to.”

Max’s eyes were bright, and his face red with exercise and excitement. He came to the gate and stood wiping his feet and looking from one to the other for several moments before he felt the awkwardness that had come over him. His long rubber coat was thrown back, and little streams of water ran down his back and formed a pool on the floor behind him.

“You’d better come out,” he said. “It’s the prettiest thing I ever saw—a clean straight span from the main house to the tower.”

Bannon stood watching him quizzically; then he turned to Hilda. She, too, had been looking at Max, but she turned at the same moment, and their eyes met.

“Do you want to go?” he said.

She nodded eagerly. “I’d like to ever so much.”

Then Bannon thought of the rain, but she saw his thought as he glanced toward the window, and spoke quickly.

“I don’t mind—really. Max will let me take his coat.”

“Sure,” said Max, and he grinned. She slipped into it, and it enveloped her, hanging in folds and falling on the floor.

“I’ll have to hold it up,” she said. “Do we have much climbing?”

“No,” said Max, “it ain’t high. And the stairs are done, you know.”

Hilda lifted the coat a little way with both hands, and put out one small toe. Bannon looked at it, and shook his head. “You’ll get your feet wet,” he said.

She looked up and met Bannon’s eyes again, with an expression that puzzled Max.

“I don’t care. It’s almost time to go home, anyway.”

So they went out, and closed the door; and Max, who had been told to “stay behind and keep house,” looked after them, and then at the door, and an odd expression of slow understanding came into his face. It was not in what they had said, but there was plainly a new feeling between them. For the first time in his life, Max felt that another knew Hilda better than he did. The way Bannon had looked at her, and she at him; the mutual understanding that left everything unsaid; the something—Max did not know what it was, but he saw it and felt it, and it disturbed him.

He sat on the table, and swung his feet, while one expression chased another over his face. When he finally got himself together, he went to the door, and opening it, looked out at the black, dim shape of the elevator that stood big and square, only a little way before him, shutting out whatever he might else have seen of rushing sky or dim-lighted river, or of the railroads and the steamboats and the factories and rolling mills beyond. It was as if this elevator were his fate, looming before him and shutting out the forward view. In whatever thoughts he had had of the future, in whatever plans, and they were few, which he had revolved in his head, there had always been a place for Hilda. He did not see just what he was to do, just what he was to become, without her. He stood there for a long time, leaning against the door-jamb with his hands in his pockets, and the sharper gusts of rain whirled around the end of the little building and beat on him. And then—well, it was Charlie Bannon; and Max knew that he was glad it was no one else.

The narrow windows in the belt gallery had no glass, and the rain came driving through them into the shadows, each drop catching the white shine of the electric lights outside. The floor was trampled with mud and littered with scraps of lumber, tool boxes, empty nail kegs, and shavings. The long, gloomy gallery was empty when Bannon and Hilda stepped into it, excepting a group of men at the farther end, installing the rollers for the belt conveyor—they could be seen indistinctly against a light in the river house.

The wind came roaring around the building, and the gallery trembled and shook. Hilda caught her breath and stopped short.

“It’s all right,” said Bannon. “She’s bound to move some.”

“I know—” she laughed—”I wasn’t expecting it—it startled me a little.”

“Watch where you step.” He took her arm and guided her slowly between the heaps of rubbish.

At one of the windows she paused, and stood full in the rain, looking out at the C. & S. C. tracks, with their twinkling red and green lights, all blurred and seeming far off in the storm.

“Isn’t this pretty wet?” he said, standing beside her.

“I don’t care.” She shook the folds of the rubber coat, and glanced down at it. “I like it.”

They looked out for a long time. Two millwrights came through the gallery, and glanced at them, but they did not turn. She stepped forward and let the rain beat on her face—he stood behind, looking at her. A light showed far down the track, and they heard a faint whistle. “A train,” he said; and she nodded. The headlight grew, and the car lights appeared behind it, and then the black outline of the engine. There was a rush and a roar, and it passed under them.

“Doesn’t it make you want to jump down?” she said softly, when the roar had dwindled away.

He nodded with a half-smile.

“Say,” he said, a little later, “I don’t know about your writing—I don’t believe we’d better—” he got the words out more rapidly—”I’ll tell you what you do—you come along with me and we won’t have to write.”

“Come—where?”

“Up to the St. Lawrence. We can start on the third just the same.”

She did not answer, and he stopped. Then, after a moment, she slowly turned, and looked at him.

“Why—” she said—”I don’t think I——”

“I’ve just been thinking about it. I guess I can’t do anything else—I mean I don’t want to go anywhere alone. I guess that’s pretty plain, isn’t it—what I mean?”

She leaned back against the wall and looked at him; it was as if she could not take her eyes from his face.

“Perhaps I oughtn’t to expect you to say anything now,” he went on. “I just thought if you felt anything like I did, you’d know pretty well, by this time, whether it was yes or no.”

She was still looking at him. He had said it all, and now he waited, his fists knotted tightly, and a peculiar expression on his face, almost as if he were smiling, but it came from a part of his nature that had never before got to the surface. Finally she said:—

“I think we’d better go back.”

He did not seem to understand, and she turned away and started off alone. In a moment he was at her side. He guided her back as they had come, and neither spoke until they had reached the stairway. Then he said, in a low tone that the carpenters could not hear:—

“You don’t mean that—that you can’t do it?”

She shook her head and hurried to the office.

 

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17

LIVE TALK: Calumet “K”: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel by Shoshana Milgram Ph.D.

“This talk offers an introduction to the background, spirit and craft of the novel Ayn Rand called her favorite. Calumet ‘K,’ she wrote, features a ‘portrait of an efficacious man’; it reflects the sense of life of ‘a time when people were capable of admiring productive achievement.’ Dr. Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializes in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Ayn Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Ayn Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Ayn Rand’s life (to 1957).

Talk will be presented at OCON 2017 in Pittsburg, PA and is FREE for all students to attend!